Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber had a friendship and songwriting partnership that outlasted most marriages. For 61 years, the two teamed up to write hundreds of songs, and dozens of those — such as “Hound Dog” and “There Goes My Baby” — went on to become pop classics.
When Leiber died in 2011 at the age of 78, one could have forgiven Stoller if he had given up on music and faded into seclusion. Instead, he has bravely carried on, honoring their legacy by not only continuing to oversee worldwide productions of their smash theatrical musical “Smokey Joe’s Café,” but even co-writing an entirely new musical that was a critically acclaimed smash hit as well.
Now Stoller is turning his attention to the Pasadena Playhouse, where a production of “Smokey” will be opening Tuesday and running through Oct. 13. The show is a revue packed with dozens of his and Leiber’s greatest hits, and the 80-year-old composing legend was eager to talk about it by phone from his Los Angeles office. “We tried a long time to find a way to make a show out of our songs, and there were two real tries in London,” explains Stoller. “Storylines didn’t work, so ultimately I told potential producers why don’t we do songs and no book and that’s how it became ‘Smokey Joe’s Café,’ which, at this point, it’s the longest running revue in Broadway history after running five years.
“I’m very excited about the Pasadena Playhouse production,” he continues. “Jeffrey Polk is a wonderful creative director, and they did a small run at El Portal and I’ve seen this cast before and they’re wonderful.”
Stoller met Leiber in Los Angeles when they were both 17 years old and Leiber was looking for a composing partner to craft tunes for lyrics he had written. Stoller, in turn, was looking for someone to help him find words for piano music he was writing, and within six months they had a song sold to an artist named Jimmy Witherspoon.
The key to their success lay in pioneering the ability to write songs that could “crossover” from the R&B charts, known at the time as “black music,” to appeal to the broader audience for rock and pop songs. Their first smash came when Elvis Presley covered “Hound Dog,” a song they originally wrote for African-American singer Big Mama Thornton, but they also helped African-American singers elevate their style into the genre known as soul music when they added strings, tympani and other instruments normally associated with classical music to The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby.”
“We worked so well together, because Jerry was brilliant, a brilliant lyric writer,” Stoller recalls. “Still, he would start something and I would finish it, and in interviews we’d finish each other’s sentences, because we were very much in tune. It was one of those lucky coincidences that he called me up because he got my number from a drummer who couldn’t continue to write songs with him.
“We were 17, shook hands and we were partners for 61 years,” Stoller continues. “I miss him a lot. He was like a brother because we grew up together since the age of 17. I do continue to write, and I had a show on Broadway that I wrote with some other people two years ago.”
Indeed, that show was called “The People in the Picture,” and Stoller wrote it with lyricist Iris Dart and fellow composer Artie Butler. The show was designed to play as a limited-run engagement of just three months, but still managed to be nominated for a Drama Desk Award while its star Donna Murphy scored a Tony Award nomination.
While Stoller hopes to relaunch “Picture” as a nationally touring production, he is appreciative of the fact that “Smokey Joe’s Café” has proven to be timeless. Its revue format, without a storyline, may be simple, but with songs ranging from “Yakety Yak” to “Jailhouse Rock” to “Stand By Me,” it has undeniable charm that’s rooted in Stoller’s amazing instincts for what makes a song work or not.
“You can never tell for sure, and you have a feel that certain things will be hits and others not,” says Stoller. “You abandon some of those but until you have a recording, it’s hard to have the feel of a hit, because songs become hits by virtue of a record, a performance that people hear, not on a piece of paper. “We just knew when we heard Big Mama Thornton’s recording, we were in the studio with her, and we knew it was a hit, though we waited months for it to be released,” he continues. “It did and became a big, big hit at the top of rhythm and blues charts. Other times, you think you have a song that works and it doesn’t. Or you put two songs on a record, you think you had a hit on the A side and then the B side takes off, like ‘Poison Ivy.’”
“Smokey Joe’s Café” runs from Tuesday through Oct. 13 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $45 to $125. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.
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